Some in Illinois worry budget deal to avoid fiscal cliff could create crisis for them

Meet Sara Moore. She’s 78 years old, lives in Lakeview and struggles with chronic pain after fighting two bouts of cancer and dental surgery.

Moore depends on Medicaid, Medicare and her Social Security check to make ends meet. The Medicare pays for her home caretaker who does her shopping, gives her a shower, cleans her home and other “things I’m just too weak to do nowadays.”

Her Social Security check of $1,000 a month pays for her subsidized apartment, groceries, TV and other items. Medicaid covers her prescriptions.

The trouble is, all three programs could be reduced as part of the federal government's plan to downsize its debt. Lawmakers in Washington have been in a contentiously long battle over ways to avoid the pending fiscal cliff—a set of cuts and tax hikes that could take place if Democrats and Republicans can’t reach a budget agreement by the new year.

The automatic measures could mean more than $500 billion would be slashed from the federal budget deficit, according to Congressional Budget Office projections.

To avoid these cuts, Democrats and Republicans are bargaining over a series of budget cuts that include the possibility of reducing Social Security payments, and are still discussing an increase in the Medicare eligibility age and cutting Medicaid.

"If my medical help is cut, I'd have a hard time getting by,” Moore said. She admits she could cut back on her TV and Internet, but that still wouldn't make up for the financial shortfall and she doesn’t know where else to look for help.

“My kids are in no position to pay my rent,” she said. “Honest to God, I just don't know what I'd do. And I'm not the only one."

Even though Moore has trouble getting around, she made sure to get downtown for one of a series of recent protests in front of Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin's office. A coalition called Make Wall Street Pay Illinois has organized demonstrations in recent weeks to get Durbin's attention. On Nov. 9, several protesters were arrested in his office and in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Building. Then on Dec. 6 they built a large shantytown named "Durbinville” in the Federal Plaza. Moore was among the protesters at “Durbinville.” Four days after that, the demonstrators had another march on his office.

Durbin’s a key figure in the budget negotiations. He has long been one of the "Gang of Six," three senators from each side of the aisle focused on developing a plan to decrease the country’s debt. He has also played a central role as one of the architects of the Democrats’ deficit-reduction plan and in continuing negotiations around possible cuts to social safety net programs.

The activists have been calling for Durbin and the other lawmakers to focus on corporate tax breaks instead of programs like Medicaid.

When asked about Durbin's response to the demonstrations, a spokesman told The Chicago Reporter earlier this month that the senator understood the importance of such programs.

“Senator Durbin strongly supports our safety net programs such as Social Security, Medicare and nutrition assistance,” spokesman John Normoyle said in an emailed statement.

Among the proposals Democrats have put forward is raising taxes on people earning over $250,000 but they have also said that cuts to social programs could be another option.

“We can't be so naive to believe that just taxing the rich will solve our problems,” said Durbin in a Nov. 27 speech laying out his deficit reduction strategy. “Put everything on the table. Repeat. Everything on the table.”

What the cuts could look like is still unclear.

Though any cutbacks are “a huge concern,” said Dan Lesser, director for economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates for low income families.

For Medicaid patients, Lesser said the financial cuts could be made through reducing individual programs.

"What's more at risk is not people being kicked off entirely, but the services available," said Lesser. "We have already eliminated non-emergency dental care and a limit on prescriptions."

For Republicans, it may not just be about money, said Andrew Fieldhouse, a federal budget policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank. Fieldhouse said it could also be about ideology, particularly when it comes to Medicaid.

"Medicaid is what the Republicans are really gunning for," said Fieldhouse. "It's a back-door attack to attack the Affordable Care Act and its planned Medicaid expansion. You can get after that expansion of coverage if you defund the rest of Medicaid and cut it into block grants.”

“But I think Democrats will be very hesitant to cut Medicaid because it also provides health care very efficiently,” he said.

In Illinois, about 17.2 percent of the population gets all or a portion of their healthcare from Medicaid, according to 2011 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. Another 14.6 percent of the population gets Medicare. An aging population and the stagnant poverty rate means there will likely be continuing demand for the programs.

The programs make a huge dent in the poverty rate for seniors, according to a report from the Illinois Alliance for Retired Americans. The poverty rate among seniors who received benefits between 2006 and 2008 was just 8 percent, but for those who didn't get benefits, 44 percent lived in poverty.

Although program cuts may just be numbers on a balance sheet to legislators, to seniors like Moore, they could mean more tough choices.

Moore recently had to deal an increase on the price of her Medicaid prescription drugs.

"I just got a letter the other day saying I have to pay $420 for certain drugs. I will definitely have to decide what to do about these drugs, whether to keep taking them," said Moore.

"These are things mostly do with pain,” she said. “I probably wouldn't die without them but neither would I sleep."

Moore said she plans to continue being vocal against possible cuts as long as deficit discussions are ongoing. "We have to continue to beat that drum and be terribly involved, and eventually we are going to get through to them."

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